Black Billionaire Robert F. Smith’s Nonprofit Partners With Prudential Financial To Help HBCU Students With College Expenses

According to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, more than 75 percent of students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are considered low-income, relying heavily on Pell Grants to meet their college expenses. However, a growing body of research confirms that for many of these students, those grants are not enough.

Their financial instability is also often compounded by unforeseen emergency expenses that when left unaddressed, threaten to derail their college careers altogether. Add to that, in order to secure financial support many of these students are often required to sign complex promissory notes that could indebt them well into their adult lives, yet many lack the fundamental financial literacy needed to make informed financial decisions. A new partnership between Black billionaire Robert F. Smith’s nonprofit Student Freedom Initiative and Prudential Financial is sending help their way, both literally and figuratively.

They’re launching the Handling Everyday Life Problems for Students (a.k.a HELPS) program during the spring 2022 academic year at participating HBCUs. Prudential is providing $1.8 million in microgrants to HBCU students in an effort to accelerate economic mobility and close the financial divide, furthering Student Freedom Initiative and Prudential’s shared commitment to helping close the racial wealth gap. Prudential will also provide paid internships and pro bono services to help improve financial literacy among HBCU students and their families.

“Student Freedom Initiative applauds the leadership of Prudential Financial and their support for our shared mission of eliminating barriers of access for underserved communities,” says chairman Smith, who founded the nonprofit in 2020, shortly after he famously snagged headlines by paying off the educational debt for the entire 2019 graduating class of Atlanta’s historically Black Morehouse College. “By enabling the launch of the HELPS Program, a vital component of our work is to address the holistic needs of HBCU students and families, Prudential’s gift will provide long-needed and often overlooked aid and support persistence of those most vulnerable in our community.”

Student Freedom Initiative Executive Director Mark A. Brown says the HELPS program will help empower financially vulnerable students and equip them with the resources they need to address unexpected, one-time expenses, which research has shown disproportionately adversely impacts Black students.

“One HBCU president told us about a student who was unable to fully participate on camera for class – as required – due to a damaged computer, which ultimately impacted that student’s grades,” remembers Brown, an alum of Alabama HBCU, Tuskegee University. “Another president described always having to keep petty cash in their office to help students, including once giving a student $300 to cover an unexpected expense. That student later told the president that they likely would not have graduated without that $300. So, the work that we’re doing through this partnership is impactful and helping to contribute to the long-term success of these talented and deserving students.”

Launching as a three-year pilot program with an initial cohort of HBCUs, the HELPS Program is also supplementing HBCU-provided resources. Students who qualify will receive supplemental funds to address emergent financial issues that present a risk to the student’s ability to matriculate, including issues that may cause immediate risk to a student’s health, life, property, or environment, requiring immediate attention.

And the support doesn’t end there. Prudential is also making good on its commitment to building a fully inclusive workforce within its own ranks, providing paid internships via the platform, which pairs highly qualified, rising sophomores through seniors across all majors with companies seeking diverse talent. There are more than 220 companies, more than 14,000 students, and 1,300+ Course Learning Management Systems on the platform. Additionally, Prudential will collaborate with Student Freedom Initiative and the participating institutions to prepare and conduct culturally inclusive, financial literacy education and training for students.

“At Prudential, we’ve spent decades working to close the financial divide, in part through partnerships that address systemic barriers to economic, social, and racial equity,” says Sarah Keh, vice president, Inclusive Solutions, at Prudential Financial. “As part of our multi-pronged strategy to support HBCUs, our partnership with Student Freedom Initiative will help us scale solutions so that more Black students will remain in college and ultimately graduate, putting them on a path to financial security.”

To learn more, visit Brown is available for interviews about the HELPS program and to share insights on the student debt crisis disproportionately affecting students of color.

About Student Freedom InitiativeA single-purpose nonprofit organization, Student Freedom Initiative provides a catalyst for freedom in professional and life choices for students attending Minority Serving Institutions (“MSIs”) by increasing their social and economic mobility using a student-centric, evidence-based, holistic, and collaborative approach. Initially focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Student Freedom Initiative enables mobility through four transformational components: (1) Income-Contingent Alternative to Parent Plus and Private Loans, (2) Internships, (3) Tutoring/Mentorships/Other Services, and (4) Targeted HBCU Capacity Building. Student Freedom Initiative collaborates with community-based organizations, businesses, and governmental entities through public-private partnerships to make sustainable, systemic changes to support the entire HBCU ecosystem. To date, Student Freedom Initiative has received generous contributions from our anchor donors Robert F. Smith, Fund II Foundation, and Cisco Systems, and many others who have provided financial and/or in-kind services. The program has also been acknowledged and supported by the Business Roundtable’s Racial Equity & Justice Subcommittee on Education. To learn more, visit or find us on Twitter @StudentFreedom.

This story first appeared on